Mickey Edwards: A wide-ranging and clear-eyed examination of the history of American conservatism

Roundup: Talking About History

For more than half a century, historians, sociologists, journalists, psychologists, political scientists, and philosophers have studied, probed, analyzed, pondered, attacked, lauded, and attempted to explain that force that is American political conservatism. Sometimes this avalanche of books, articles, and op-eds has veered weirdly into the realms of psychobabble (once a group of left-leaning psychiatrists, without ever meeting or talking to him, diagnosed conservative Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for president, as a megalomaniac); at other times books focused on relatively minor pieces of the conservative mosaic, creating straw men against whom they proceeded to rail. Occasionally, conservative insiders have attempted to put their own spin on defining what conservatism is, or at least what it once was.

Now comes Patrick Allitt. The accepted norm in academia is for praise of conservatism to be left to the practitioners while others, more “objective,’’ more “scholarly,’’ denounce conservatives as morally and intellectually inferior. That’s the game and them’s the rules. Allitt, a highly regarded history professor at Emory University, clearly did not get the playbook. He neither praises nor denounces; he merely describes. And while his new book, “The Conservatives,’’ is not what one might call lively, it is rich in detail and insight. George Nash, himself the author of a four-volume history of conservatism that has occupied a place on my shelves for decades, describes Allitt’s book as “perceptive, rigorously balanced, and richly panoramic,’’ and he’s right. It may, in fact, be a bit too panoramic. It starts not with Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush but with John Adams’s philosophical disagreements with Diderot, Rousseau, and the Marquis de Condorcet. And it scarcely skips over a name or a thought or a book or a year on the way from there to here.

This is not all bad. Allitt has long studied conservative politics. He is a Brit who came to this country well after the rise of modern conservatism had already begun; he is absorbed by it (it’s not his first book on the topic), but he’s not invested in it. Thus the book’s main benefit: One learns a lot without being either lectured at or pandered to.

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